(This story may be triggering for some readers. Anyone feeling distress can call a 24-hour crisis line at 1-866-925-4419. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be reached toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.)
The Williams Lake First Nation has released preliminary results from its investigation of 14 hectares of a broader 480-hectare site around a former residential school.
With the help of ground-penetrating radar and other geophysical investigative techniques, the Indigenous government says that 93 "reflections" were recorded at the former St. Joseph's Mission site south of Williams Lake.
The characteristics of these reflections are "indicative of potential human remains", according to the Williams Lake First Nation.
“We understand that this information is going to be very difficult to process for survivors of St. Joseph’s Mission, their families, our community members and others in the general public,” Chief Willie Sellars said in a news release. “There is much more work to do on the St. Joseph’s site, and we have every intention of continuing with this work.
"For now, it’s important that everyone focus on their own wellness, and the wellness of those around them," he continued. "I’m encouraging everyone to reach out to others, to engage in ceremony or to access the various supports available. We also ask people to please respect the fact that the site of the former St. Joseph’s Mission is on what is now private lands. There is 24-hour security at that location, and people should not be visiting or attending the site without first making arrangements to do so.”
St. Joseph's Mission operated as an Indian residential school from 1886 to 1991.
One of the school's survivors, Phyllis Webstad, later founded Orange Shirt Day, setting the stage for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to become a statutory holiday on September 30, 2021.
St. Joseph's Mission was operated for many years by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which is a congregation of the Catholic Church founded in 1816 by French priest Saint Eugène de Mazenod.
According to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC, students who attended came from many communities. They included: Alexandria; Alexis Creek; Alkali Lake; Anaham; Anderson Lake; Ashcroft; Bonaparte; Bridge River; Canim Lake; Canoe Creek; Clinton; Coldwater; Cowichan; Dog Creek; Euchinico; Fountain; High Bar; Kamloops; Kluskus Lake; Kluxkux Lake; Kuklinko; Lake Babine; Lillooet; Little Shuswap; Moricetown; Mount Currie; Natzoo; Nazko; Nemiah Valley; North Thompson; Pavillion; Pemberton; Quesnel; Redstone; Riske Creek; Seton Lake; Skwah; Soda Creek; Squamish; Stone; Stoney; Taodistan; Toosey; Ulkatcho; Ulgatcho; and Williams Lake.
One of the former principals of the school, Hubert O'Connor, was later convicted of rape and indecent assault on two young Indigenous women at the school. O'Connor rose to the rank of a bishop in the Catholic Church before the criminal case ended his career.
Another Oblate priest, Harold McIntee, went to jail for two years after being charged in 1988 with sexual assault of 17 boys over a 25-year period.
The Oblates also operated three other former residential schools in B.C. near where ground-penetrating radar has detected the existence of human remains.
The first was in May of last year when the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced that it had located 215 unmarked and undocumented graves at the former residential school in Kamloops. Next in June, the Lower Kootenay Band found the remains of 182 people near the former Kootenay Indian Residential School in the Cranbrook area.
Then in July, the Penelakut Tribe announced that more than 160 undocumented graves were located near the former Kuper Island Industrial School.